The entire Aliyah experience can be one of the most trying yet exciting times a family will ever go through. During the planning stages, parents try to think about all of the factors that will make the transition easier. Decisions such as where to live, schools, careers, and other “tachlis” items must be decided without much more than the recommendations of others to go on.
Luckily, new Olim have a strong support system in this wonderful country. Organizations such as AACI and Nefesh B’Nefesh provide a great deal of needed assistance for families as they step off the plane. Even with that help however, Israel’s educational system can be a bit overwhelming. When planning Aliyah, here are some items to consider, when choosing the options for your children…
- If your kids are going into Gan (Pre-School) there are fewer decisions that need to be made. Check with others in your new neighborhood with kids who have gone through the Gan system. Find out which Ganenot (Teachers) are recommended, and which to avoid. In many larger cities, teacher placements in the Ganim can vary from year to year. So, just because a Gan was great last year, it’s important to check that the same staff will be present when you come into the community.
- If your kids are going into elementary school, there are a few things that you need to think about. First, are there other English speakers in the school? While we all want our children to learn Hebrew as quickly as possible, it will be much easier for them if they have a friend or 2 to lean on, at least at the beginning. When my 3 year old entered Gan, he found another boy who spoke English and just did whatever he did. By Chanukah time, my son was able to understand on his own, but at the beginning, a buddy can really help. You also want to check out what English programs exist at the school. Schools in cities with large Anglo populations (Modi’in, Bet Shemesh for example) may have well developed English programs within the school. You may need to pay a bit extra, but you want to make sure your children keep up their English skills. This is important from a knowledge point of view, but also from a confidence standpoint. During the first year, English may be one of the only subjects that your children excel at. A strong English program can boost their confidence a great deal.
- High School brings a different set of challenges as the students are focused on preparing for the Bagrut exams for each subject. The Bagruyot are similar to the Regents exams. They assess a student’s overall proficiency in a specific subject. The test results are important as they can determine college placements and other future opportunities. There are English versions for some subjects that are given to immigrant students, but you want to find a high school for your child that is going to help them to succeed. There are schools in both the Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv areas that offer a full English language program. Some families love this option and some families want their kids to jump right in and integrate into the regular high school experience. These English language schools can also be quite expensive.
So, with all of these decisions to make, what can parents do to make sure we point our kids towards success? Here are some important tips to consider…
- Meet with your community’s Oleh representative as soon as possible. Most larger cities have someone whose job it is to help new families. In addition to educational needs, this person can help you with other questions that come up along the way. If you move to a city that does not have its own absorption office, find out where the closest office is and make an appointment. Find out what resources are available for your kids.
- Learn Hebrew! Ulpan is just as important for kids as it is for adults. The little ones will pick it up on their own, but for the rest (ages 6+) it is important to get started as soon as possible. This is actually something that you can start before you arrive on Aliyah. There are many US/UK based Ulpan programs available, as well as several online options. The more you can do ahead of time, the better prepared you will be. I spent my entire life in a Jewish day school with a strong Hebrew language program. I thought that I would be OK when I arrived. I quickly learned however that speaking Hebrew every day to Israelis is a totally different ballgame.
- Getting help is okay. Many strong and serious students arrive in Israel and go from being at the top of the class to being at the bottom. This is totally normal. Do not wait for help to come to you. Be proactive and go in knowing that your kids may need some extra help, at least during the first few years. There are programs that can actually set you up with teachers who are familiar with both the US and Israeli educational systems, and can ease the transition. Some kids might not need any help by December, while other will take a few years to acclimate academically. Each kid is different so be prepared for all the possibilities.
- Help them to enjoy education. This is a great opportunity to find something that your kids actually enjoy learning. Israel has a vast network of “Chugim” or afterschool activities in everything from academics to art to sports… The list is almost endless. There are also a ton of online programs that can be arranged to remind your children that learning can still be fun.
- Finally, be there to listen. You are also going through a lot of stress, as Aliyah is not just about school. Your kids however, need you to be there to listen. If your kids come home crying after a tough day, don’t get discouraged. Hear what they have to say and if you don’t know how to make them feel better, consult with someone who can help.
We all want our kids to have an easy Aliyah transition. That first year in the Israeli school system can be a challenging experience, but with some help, understanding, and a lot of faith, we can make sure that are kids have what they need to succeed.